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The State of Gronk: 4 Thoughts on What the Star Tight End's Return Means to the Patriots


I can totally envision Rob Gronkowski reading that headline and becoming totally pumped:

There's a state called Gronk? You're kidding, bro. That's sweet! YO, JULIAN, HEAR THAT? THERE'S A STATE NAMED AFTER ME. What? No, it's not called the state of confusion! What's that even mean? It's the state of Gronk! A STATE. Like Canada! We gotta go there and party when the season is over! HUH-HUH.

Word-for-imagined-word right there. Meanwhile, Patriots fans are in a relieved state after Bill Belichick delivered word today that the All-World tight end has been cleared to play roughly eight months after blowing out his knee against the Browns.

Gronk is essential to the Patriots' very real hopes of winning a fourth Super Bowl since 2001, and their first since 2004. Now that he is back and officially good to go, here are four questions regarding his relevance and role ...

1. Will he be as good as new?

Actually, know what's remarkable? I'm not convinced we ever actually saw Gronk at the peak of his powers, which is kind of ridiculous considering he had has a chance to become the most prolific and well-rounded tight end in league history.

Remember, he missed his entire junior season at Arizona with a back injury, which is why he was there at the 42d pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He accomplished big things in college immediately -- as a true freshman, he averaged 18.8 yards per catch on 28 receptions, and was a third-team All-American as a sophomore.

Maybe he wasn't quite the physical specimen he became once he got to the NFL and scarfed down his Wheaties, but in terms of pure athleticism, it's actually possible he hit his high point before getting that first big scar on his back -- and before he ever got to New England. Back injuries always take some toll, even when you're young.

Anyway, that's tangentially related to the question, for which the answer is two-fold: No, he will not be as good as new. No one ever is after the traumatic injuries he has endured. But, yes, he can be damn close to what he was before his fateful collision with T.J. Ward, and that's more than enough to make an enormous difference.

Gronkowski, who had 38 touchdowns in his first 43 regular-season games, was so far beyond an ordinary player that he can still be game-changing and dynamic, one of the league's greatest offensive weapons, even if the injuries have taken something away. And I'm OK with that, because even a slightly diminished Gronk changes everything with this offense. Damn, it'll be fun to watch him again.

2. How important is he?

I mean, there are a couple of way to answer that.

One is in context to the rest of his teammates. If you were ranking the importance of every player on the Patriots' roster in order, Gronk would be, what, no lower than third? Tom Brady is obviously No. 1, and Darrelle Revis might be No. 2 given the impact his presence and playmaking ability will have on the remodeled defense. But Gronk gets the bronze-medal spot on the podium, and I'd argue he's closer to No. 2 than he is to No. 4.

We can also look at it through the prism of the near past. For a player who his entering just his fifth season, Gronk has already played a featured role in too many what-ifs.

If he didn't injure his ankle in the 2011 AFC Championship Game, rendering him as the world's biggest decoy for Super Bowl XLVI, the Patriots probably have that fourth Lombardi Trophy in their possession ...

If he doesn't break his forearm again in the AFC Divisional playoff matchup with the Texans during the 2012 season, the Patriots have a decent shot at beating the Ravens and advancing to the Super Bowl ...

If Ward doesn't annihilate Gronk's knee in Week 14 last year, who knows how much closer the AFC Championship Game mismatch versus the Broncos becomes?

Gronk's injuries have directly and indirectly cost the Patriots an even higher standing in league lore. If they're going to win that fourth Super Bowl this year, he must stay on the field. So how important is he? As important as a tight end has ever been in the NFL.

3. Should the Patriots rest him or limit his snaps?

I hope he plays so little in preseason that Michael Felger begins wondering aloud if he might not make the roster, a la 2007 Randy Moss. I know, I know, Gronk needs reps. He needs to test the knee. But once he has his sea legs underneath him, get him out of there until the games matter.

When the games do matter, beginning Sept. 7 at Miami, Gronk should always been on the field when the outcome in still at stake. There are only 16 games in the NFL season (somewhere, Roger Goodell mutters, "For now," then laughs maniacally).

Every one matters. Even against the Jaguars.

Belichick cannot afford to sit Gronk some random Sunday with the NFL version of DNP-coach's decision, like Gregg Popovich can do with Tim Duncan during an uninspiring January game in Sacramento.

But Belichick also hopefully has altered his approach to playing his stars in blowouts. There's no logical reason why Gronk was on the field blocking for an extra point -- and breaking his arm -- during that 35-point win over the Colts in November 2012.

The Patriots' best players need their coach to protect them.

4. Is the urban legend true? What urban lege ... oh, that urban legend?

No, that's actually true. - *

Belichick, with almost unfathomable brilliant/insane foresight, was already aware in 2000 that an 11-year-old in Williamsville, N.Y. who ran face-first into brick walls for the fun of it and was already dating high school girls would be his franchise-altering tight end someday.

So during the 2000 NFL Draft, his first with the Patriots, he spent a fifth-round pick on a tight end named Dave Stachelski out of Boise State. Stachelski sort of looked like a Gronkowski but he could not play like one, catching one pass for five yards in two seasons with the Patriots.

stachelskifinn723.jpgBut then, Belichick did not draft Stachelski to actually play for the Patriots. No, his plan was far more brilliant and dastardly than finding a useful tight end in the fifth round. And here's where he puts the "evil" in evil genius.

Belichick drafted Stachelski knowing he would someday need to harvest body parts to repair that grown-up Gronkowski boy years later.

It's true. Stachelski couldn't play like Gronkowski -- hell, he couldn't play like Dan Gronkowski. But he fit the uniform, if you get the drift. He's still a part -- or parts -- of the team.

This is the only picture I could find of him in the Globe archives. I don't believe we're looking at a completion there. Oh, my goodness, Belichick even removed his hands!

That's how prepared Belichick is, and if you doubt the story, I have two questions for you:

Have you heard from Dave Stachelski lately? He didn't make it in the NFL. But the Patriots are counting on his knee having a great and healthy season, if you follow.

And if this isn't true, how come Snopes hasn't debunked it? Exactly.

* -- It's not actually true. But First Take will probably debate it anyway, with Skip Bayless obviously taking the pro-parts-harvesting side.

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